Arts and Humanities
Thu March 14, 2013
What If Abraham Lincoln Was Gay? New Play Explores LGBT Teen Issues
Pandora Productions opens the world premiere of Bixby Elliot's "Abraham Lincoln Was a Faggot" tonight. The production is the winner of Pandora's New Play Project, in which audience members voted for the new play they'd most like to see produced.
"Abraham Lincoln Was a Faggot" is directed by artistic director Michael Drury and runs in the Henry Clay Theatre (604 S. Third St.) through March 24. The company will host a “Meet the Playwright” opening night reception with Elliot immediately following the opening night performance at The FAF Gallery on the first floor of The Henry Clay Building.
I spoke with Elliot about his serio-comic play, how we perceive our political icons, and the new play process.
So this play is about 17-year-old Cal, who writes an essay exploring the hypothetical scenario that becomes the title of the play. What kind of character is Cal? What is he trying to figure out when he engages in this creative exercise?
I love Cal and I think audiences will fall in love with him too (and the actor that has brought him to life so wonderfully) Cal is smart and creative and trying to figure out life. He is a young man grappling with sexuality and his identity - and that is exactly what he is trying to figure out through his journey exploring the sexuality of Abraham Lincoln. He feels if he can prove that Abraham Lincoln was gay that it will validate who he is as a person. In the end he comes to realize that he is special and unique just as he is and he doesn’t need anyone or any president to validate who he is.
What's the tone of the play? The title feels like a satiric romp, but the content sounds serious – family issues, bullying, adolescent coming to grips with sexuality and how it affects his life.
I like to say that I write funny plays about serious subjects – so you are right – the play is funny and satirical and, at times, serious. I hope that through comedy I can engage audiences in an important dialogue about sexuality, authenticity and bullying. It is also a little sexy!
Speaking of the title, it and premise of the play reminded me, oddly enough, of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer. What are some of the challenges – and delights – of re-imagining a venerable historic and public character? Of assigning him what sounds like a secret life?
Gay! A Vampire Slayer! What is next “Abraham Lincoln: Alien”!?!?! Wait, I think I did see that on the cover of a tabloid magazine once.
I don’t actually think of it as imagining a different life for Abraham (a la the Vampire Slayer) but actually digging to uncover the truth of Abraham Lincoln through a particular lens. I am, in many ways, just like the young boy Cal at the center of the play – I would love to prove that Abraham Lincoln really was gay and I approached the research just like Cal – looking for every bit of evidence that might support that theory. And there is some compelling history that supports this (come see the play and you will learn all about that!). The truth is, we may never know if Abraham Lincoln was gay – in a time when there were no words such as “homosexual,” how could he be described as queer? Short of actual documented proof that he had sexual intercourse with another man (which I don’t believe exists), we may never know for sure.
How do you think America in 2013 would react if new historic evidence supported Cal's hypothesis?
I would love to see how America would react. That would be fantastic. I think there would be many people that would be upset and would never believe it (even if there were concrete proof) and these people might be very angry. People love their presidents – and they really love Lincoln. One of the things that’s interesting about this project is trying to understand why our leaders need to be so PERFECT. Why is it we expect them to be without fault or blemishes? I think in 2013 we are moving away from that. Presidents are allowed to have tried drugs or cheated on their wives (who knew that Elliot Spitzer could rebound from his failings?). I also think recent information about Lincoln, specifically information about his mental ailments such as melancholy and depression, have paved the way for us to see Abraham Lincoln in different ways.
The idealist in me would like to answer the question by saying: I would love to live in a world where we found out that Abe was gay and it didn’t matter to anyone at all.
The new play process is so different from company to company. What has the life of this play been so far? What's it like knowing that Pandora selected it for production from audience vote, rather than literary department/senior leadership decision-making? Are there subsequent productions lined up?
The process at Pandora has been great. I have felt so supported from the moment I was selected as a finalist for the competition all the way until opening night. They have taken such great care of the play and tried in every way to stay faithful to what I have written. The play has had several developmental readings in NYC but has never been fully produced. It has been a dream come true to see this play come to life and Pandora has created a vivid, funny, moving production. I couldn’t be happier!
It is super cool that the Pandora audiences picked the play. First, it is a real honor to know that they selected my play among the others. It is like being picked first for dodge ball in middle school – I won’t lie – it feels good to be picked.
Second, I love the idea of giving the audience what they want…instead of saying “we are doing this – here watch it” this process says “tell us what you want to see” and then Pandora did. I hope they are happy with their decision!
I am in discussion with some other companies about the play, but it is a challenging piece to produce because of the cast size and the (ahem) controversial title – so we will see what happens. Fingers crossed!
What's next for you? Tell me it's a round of productions of "Girl You Know It's True."
Are you a Milli Vanilli fan? [How could I not be a fan of this play? -ed.] I am happy to say that GYKIT had a fantastic production last year in Chicago at The Pavement Group and I am in talks with companies in Seattle and Toronto for additional productions of that show. I am currently working on a new play called “Birds Do It” about gay birds and Laura Bush, as well as a screenplay about a guy that decides to live in a department store.